A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, December 4, 2011

No Room At The Inn?

(Above: Father Crespin greeting parishioners after Mass)

What do you do when the most popular family on the block looks like it's headed toward divorce?
It's really none of your business, so the best you can do is say a prayer that they somehow can work it out.
That's the situation my neighbors and I find ourselves in. But in our case, the "family" isn't a nuclear family. It's a church: St. Joseph the Worker in downtown Berkeley. It's the anchor of our neighborhood, even for non-Catholics like me.
The church has been at the center of whatever has been going on ever since its founding in 1877, from housing and feeding refugees fleeing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to providing meeting space for labor organizers, peace advocates and civil rights workers including Cesar Chavez, who used St. Joseph's as a safe house whenever his life was threatened.
And I can't tell you how much I look forward every Sunday to walking by St. Joseph's just as Mass is letting out and watching all those happy people spilling out onto its front steps. It makes my day every time.
In recent years, St. Joseph's was run by Rev. George Crespin and the late Rev. Bill O'Donnell, known to one and all as Father Bill. They were a perfect tag team.
Father Bill did the social justice work, from lobbying for improvements in the public schools to getting arrested more than 200 times at anti-war and pro-civil rights demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Crespin did the pastoral work. He was the guy you could always count on for help when your mother was sick, or your sister was pregnant, or your nephew was in trouble with the cops.
In recent years, the ethnic makeup of the parish has become more and more Latino, as immigrants from Latin America settled in the area. And Crespin, who speaks flawless Spanish, was especially dear to them.
But time moves on. Father Bill died in 2004, and Crespin went into semi-retirement two years later, although still living in the rectory and performing priestly functions.
Two years ago, a new priest named John Direen was appointed to take over St. Joseph's. From the start, tension began simmering between him and some parishioners.
Among their complaints: firing the members of the pastoral council, suspending the council's Latino counterpart, the Consejo Latino, and withdrawing meeting space for the parish's long-standing social justice committee.
The final straw came last July, when he evicted Crespin from the rectory.
Since then, a sizable group of parishioners has been holding a silent vigil outside the church every Sunday morning.
Direen responded by announcing that the protestors would be barred from serving as ushers, lectors or Eucharistic ministers, as well as from serving on any parish committees.
And who knows where it will end? All I know is that St. Joseph's is a sad and lonely place to walk past these days.
There are no villains in this story. Both sides truly love the Church, even if they have different visions of what it can be. It's a clash of cultures made worse by mutual misunderstanding.
As I said, it's not my business to meddle in a family quarrel. But I can wish them peace and reconciliation this Christmas season.
There's an old Mexican tradition called La Posada that takes place at this time of year. People go from door to door, impersonating Joseph and Mary, and ask to be let in from the cold.
The first seven or eight houses always turn them away. But at the final house they are welcomed inside and given hot chocolate and Mexican bread.
And that's what I hope for St. Joseph's this Christmas. I hope everyone finds room at the inn.


Mark Coplan said...

It is the people who make up the church community, and their spiritual leader should receive direction from the flock. After all, these are people, not cattle or sheep. Respect their vision. I am an elder in my church, and we would not stand for such harsh treatment/disrespect of the members. Otherwise the priest might find himself alone one Sunday morning. God will be with the people.

Anonymous said...

Great article! My husband & I have chosen to move to another Catholic church in the area. We will return to St. Joe's when there is new leadership.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Martin for continuing to follow this very, very sad story. More recently, Fr. John told a grieving family that Fr. George could not preside over the funeral Mass of their grandparents who were killed in an accident in Mexico. SJW, the Parish, had no room at the inn for this family who needed their parish more than ever.

Since all this craziness began, I ventured outside my parish and have attended Mass at St. Columba, a wonderful, spirited parish, and St. Ambrose, so welcoming and warm. I, a stranger to those churches, made to feel as I belonged. There was room for me at those inns.